Beliefs Jana Riess: Flunking Sainthood Opinion

In defense of moderate Mormon feminism — even without priesthood

This week, the Salt Lake Tribune features an outstanding article by Peggy Fletcher Stack and a “Trib Talk” conversation facilitated by Jennifer Napier-Pierce, all focused on one question:

Short of priesthood ordination or changes in doctrine, what are some practical and concrete ways the LDS Church could empower more women and girls?

Both pieces interview Neylan McBaine, author of the interesting new book Women at Church: Magnifying LDS Women’s Local Impact. I hope to feature the book more fully soon on this blog.

Neylan McBaine's new book releases on Thursday, August 28.

Neylan McBaine’s new book releases on Thursday, August 28.

If there’s a spectrum in Mormon feminism, where priesthood ordination advocates would be placed on the radical left, Neylan (and Segullah editor Shelah Miner, also interviewed for the Trib Talk panel) would be in the center: moderate and faithful, but urging changes in the way women are treated and viewed.

As often happens with people in the middle of any controversy, you can see from the comments that Neylan’s taking crap from all sides. I’m sure she is handling this with her usual grace and poise, but still, the middle can be a tough place to be.

Some people argue that the changes she’s suggesting — such as having a woman hold her baby while male priesthood members offer the baby blessing, or having the Relief Society presidency sit on the stand during sacrament meeting to make women’s leadership less invisible — are mere window dressing, that they don’t go far enough.

Other folks are downright scandalized by even these small changes. (Watch Neylan’s explanation, right at the end of the Trib Talk, for why the RS Presidency should sit on the stand in local wards just as the general RS presidency does during General Conference. The woman is smooth, I tell you. I hope people are listening to her.)

I thank God for people like Neylan, speaking from a place of faithfulness and rootedness in the Mormon tradition.

Europe Area sisters' meetingI wish she had been present, for example, at whatever recent meeting approved this Great and Abominable Poster at left. It seems that next month there will be an all-female meeting broadcast live from Offenbach, Germany, to European Mormon women and girls ages 12 and older. I got this poster yesterday via Facebook from Jessica Duckett Finnigan, whose response, like mine, was a decided head-on-desk when she saw it.

You’d think that someone at that church meeting might have said, “Gosh, I wonder if in a meeting FOR WOMEN ONLY we might consider having at least one woman or girl on the program and scheduled to speak.”

You’d think that someone at that meeting might have said, “Gee, I wonder if it really puts our best foot forward that a meeting for women and adolescents should be advertised with the same infantilizing pastels, fonts, and floral clip art that we would use for a little girl’s birthday party.”

You’d think that someone at that meeting might have said, “Say, what would it feel like if this were reversed — if we were advertising an all-male meeting but the only featured speakers were middle-aged to elderly white women, telling the audience how perfectly wonderful it is for them to be men?”

So. Left-of-center feminists can dismiss moderate feminism all they want, and perhaps they’re right that the moderates’ proposed changes are too small.

But I can guarantee you one thing: if Neylan McBaine had been in that meeting, we’d be looking at a very different poster right now, and a different lineup of advertised speakers.

Hers would be a program that put Mormonism’s money where its mouth is and actually showed women exercising leadership rather than merely telling us constantly that women are equal to, if not better than, men.

That’s why I send up three cheers for moderate Mormon feminism. Because small changes are never, ever nothing.


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About the author

Jana Riess

Senior columnist Jana Riess is the author of many books, including "The Prayer Wheel" (2018) and "The Next Mormons: How Millennials Are Changing the LDS Church," which will be published by Oxford University Press in March 2019. She has a PhD in American religious history from Columbia University.